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Utah Football: Ranking the Toughest Games on the Utes' Schedule

Cameron Rising, Utah Utes Football

Cameron Rising and the Utes open on the road with one of their biggest games of the season before they embark on the defense of their Pac-12 title.

Utah enters a new season favored to repeat as Pac-12 champions. The Utes have a schedule that will provide a few early tests but also sets up for a strong finish in pursuit of a potential College Football Playoff berth.

Related: Utah Utes 2022 Season Preview and Prediction

A winning blend of skill and experience at many key positions has put Utah in the Pac-12 driver's seat to start the season. Cameron Rising is back to lead the offense after throwing for 2,493 yards and 20 touchdowns last season. Rising also ran for 499 yards and six scores. Tavion Thomas returns to the backfield after racking up 1,108 yards and 21 touchdowns a year ago. Utah will need to fill holes on the offensive line, at linebacker, and in the secondary to keep pace with last season's success.

Utah opens with a bang at Florida. The Utes also face potential tests with road games at UCLA, Washington State, and Oregon. USC, San Diego State, and Oregon State highlight the home slate. The early-October clash with the Trojans and late-November showdown with the Ducks could be the deciding games in Utah's quest to return to Las Vegas in December.

Here is a breakdown of Utah's 2022 schedule ranked from easiest to toughest:

12. Sept. 10 vs. Southern Utah

The FCS Thunderbirds jump to the WAC this season after spending a decade in the Big Sky Conference. DeLane Fitzgerald is in his first season at SUU after an eight-season stint at NCAA DIII school Frostburg State. Going up against Utah will be daunting. SUU is coming off back-to-back one-win seasons and has won six total games since its last FCS playoff appearance in 2017.

11. Nov. 26 at Colorado

The Buffaloes experienced considerable roster turnover after last season. Twenty-two players transferred, including leading rusher Jarek Broussard. Colorado head coach Karl Dorrell also replaced six assistant coaches. Will it fix an offense that ranked dead last in the Pac-12 with 257.4 yards per game? Dorrell better hope so or his seat will go from warm to blazing hot. Utah is light years ahead of its Rocky Mountain rival on the football field at the moment. The Utes have won five straight and 11 of their last 13 games against Colorado.

10. Nov. 12 at Stanford

This late-season matchup will be a homecoming for Cardinal transfer Gabe Reid, who transferred to Utah during the offseason. Stanford's offense was abysmal in a 52-7 loss to the Utes last season. Quarterback Tanner McKee missed the game with an injury. If McKee stays healthy, he gives Stanford a decent chance to be competitive. McKee threw for 2,327 yards and 15 touchdowns a year ago. The Cardinal fizzled after a 3-2 start last season, dropping their final seven games while scoring exactly 100 points in that stretch.

9. Nov. 5 vs. Arizona

Impressive recruiting by second-year head coach Jedd Fisch may help turn around the Wildcats. Arizona has lost 23 of its last 24 games dating back to the 2019 season. Washington State transfer quarterback Jayden de Laura should give the offense a major boost. De Laura threw for 3,684 yards and 28 touchdowns during his two seasons starting for the Cougars. Arizona has never lost six straight in its series with Utah, but the odds are pretty slim the Wildcats can snap a five-game skid against the Utes.

8. Sept. 24 at Arizona State

Massive turnover rocked the Sun Devils with the program facing serious trouble with the NCAA over alleged recruiting violations. Former starting quarterback Jayden Daniels headlined an exodus of talent through the transfer portal. Only five total starters return. Arizona State restocked with transfers, but it will take time for the Sun Devils to find their footing after basically starting from scratch on offense. Utah has never won three straight in this series.

7. Sept. 17 vs. San Diego State

The Aztecs have a recent track record of success against Pac-12 opponents, which includes last year's 33-31 win over Utah in triple overtime. San Diego will be breaking in a new quarterback and lead running back, but Virginia Tech transfer Braxton Burmeister is capable of moving the chains. He threw for 1,960 yards and 14 touchdowns for the Hokies last season. The Aztecs' strength will be on defense. They return seven starters from a unit that ranked in the top 20 nationally in scoring, rushing, and total defense a year ago.

6. Oct. 1 vs. Oregon State

The Beavers handed Utah its lone Pac-12 defeat a year ago behind a dominant performance from B.J. Baylor. Replacing him in the backfield will be a big task. Baylor churned out 1,337 yards last season, finishing as the top rusher in the Pac-12. It helps to have Chance Nolan back directing the offense. Nolan threw for 2,677 yards and 19 touchdowns last season. He is a capable dual-threat quarterback who can extend plays.

5. Oct. 27 at Washington State

The Cougars will count on Cameron Ward to be the next potent quarterback in Pullman. Ward threw for 4,648 yards and 47 touchdowns last season with Incarnate Word and followed offensive coordinator Eric Morris to Washington State. If Ward can make a successful shift from the FCS level, Washington State could be a thorn in Utah's side again this season – a role the Cougars filled often back when Mike Leach still roamed the sidelines.

4. Sept. 3 at Florida

Never count out a Billy Napier-coached team from doing special things. He won 40 games in four seasons at Louisiana and turned the Ragin Cajuns into a Top 25-level program. Napier is tasked with building up a mediocre Gators squad that fell apart on offense after September last season. If he can get consistent strong performances from quarterback Anthony Richardson, Florida could climb the SEC ladder quickly in year one under Napier.

3. Oct. 8 at UCLA

The one-two punch of Dorian Thompson-Robinson and Zach Charbonnet gives the Bruins a decent chance of making noise as a Pac-12 dark-horse contender this season. Thompson-Robinson led the Pac-12 in passing efficiency last season while Charbonnet had seven 100-yard games on his way to totaling 1,137 yards and 13 touchdowns. Getting over the hump against Utah could pose a challenge. The Utes have won five straight against UCLA, averaging 46.8 points per game during that stretch.

2. Nov. 19 at Oregon

You can bet Oregon has this game circled on the calendar. Utah plucked the Ducks twice en route to the Rose Bowl – outscoring Oregon 76-17 in a pair of lopsided victories. First-year head coach Dan Lanning will have to replace Travis Dye and CJ Verdell in the backfield. Auburn transfer Bo Nix will likely direct the offense at quarterback. Noah Sewell will anchor Oregon's defense after registering 114 tackles a year ago.

1. Oct. 15 vs. USC

Can the Trojans claim a Pac-12 title in their first season under Lincoln Riley? USC appears to be Utah's toughest challenger to another division title and a shot at back-to-back conference titles. Riley assembled a ton of elite talent on offense headlined by Oklahoma transfer Caleb Williams at quarterback, Oregon transfer Travis Dye and Stanford transfer Austin Jones will give USC's running game a major boost. Washington transfer Terrell Bynum and Oklahoma transfer Mario Williams will likely be top targets in the passing game. The Trojans' main weakness is on defense where only three starters return from a unit that in 2021 ranked near the bottom of the Pac-12 in several key defensive categories.

Written by John Coon, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sports journalist based in Utah. Follow him on Twitter @johncoonsports.